He starts reading once more about nothing much at all.
It's hard to believe. This hard-muscled sonofabitch who used to take Buster down to the rag-stuffed Navy duffel bag hanging from the cellar rafters and show him how to make it moan, this nail-hungry old hammer who used to shriek and leap onto moving trains when he was running the railroad tracks before a fight—someday he'll die. That's why Buster can't just carve his dad out of his life. He needs to do the opposite, his friend Rodney Rogers urges him. He needs to throw his arms around his father and tell him, "I love you," before it's too late, before the old man dies and maroons Buster with all that....
Guilt? What guilt? Let the old man say it first. Buster didn't need this man. Buster resented him. Resented everyone's assumption that he had been belched from the same volcano as his old man, resented everyone's disappointment when he fought and they all saw it wasn't so.
Five or six times a year he would watch his father pack up the big red Samsonite suitcase and black gym bag, put on the wide-brimmed derby and the dark shades and walk out the door alone. Bill would return a few days later with a swollen, purpled head that made it hard to know whether he had won or lost, and Buster's mother, Lula Pearl, would mmm-mmm that same mmm-mmm, and the house would fill with a silence. Buster would get the wintergreen to rub on his father's body, and his younger brother Robert would run the bathwater and get the ice. For a few hours their dad would soak in the tub, and then, for a day or two, he would just lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. Buster would catch a glimpse of him when he walked by the open bedroom door and vow never to become like that—then flush with shame for his thoughts.
Hug this man? The one pacing right now, nervously picking up and putting down the keys, the plastic cup and sunglasses on the bar in the kitchen? Hell, what for? Buster didn't need him. Tension made Buster shrivel up; this man breathed tension. Biggest fight of Buster's life to that point, the 1987 IBF title bout with Tony Tucker, and how had Buster spent the weeks before it? Looking over his shoulder to see if his father and uncle and manager were at one another's throats again. Walking out of the room and out of his skin, blanking out. Dinnertime, the fight four hours away, and what was his dad doing? Screaming at a sparring partner over a few bucks.
Say "I love you" to this man? Who just five years ago, when the clock struck 12 at a New Year's party and the fellas went around kissing the ladies, decked a 28-year-old for kissing Lula Pearl? God, Buster loathed being Bill Douglas's son, and yet, any minute now on that TV screen, Tyson was going to catch Buster with an uppercut, and Buster was going to drop...and would he have gotten up if he were the son of another man?
Ever since he was nine or 10, the first thing he would think when he was scared or hurt was, No, this can't be, I'm Bill Douglas's son. He would see a rope that dangled from a tree above a ravine and hear a voice inside him say the strangest thing: The championship of the world is on the line—will you swing across?
It made no sense; his childhood had been too soft around the edges to live life on a dare. He was born while his mother was still in high school, spent his first six years as Grandma Sarah's little pet. Cribs, high chairs, they weren't good enough, not for her Buster. The child slept in Sarah's bed, ate on Sarah's knee, and at the age of seven months he could be found sitting like a little lord each morning at the White Castle, gumming coffee-soaked biscuit from Sarah's hand.
"The first grandchild," remembers Uncle J.D., Sarah's son. "Never scolded, never punished. Every obstacle in that boy's path, my family took out of his way." Then Buster turned six, and Sarah's heart broke: Bill and Lula Pearl showed her their marriage certificate and set up house with little James.
It became so confusing, the road to manhood, so cobbled with contradictions. Even in his 20's, Buster would run to his mom with every problem, every bruise. Lula Pearl was Sarah's daughter. She would hug him and stroke him and fix his dinner. She would go to his apartment to scrub his kitchen. His dad....